Expensive cars priced well above 50 Gs litter the streets and highways. Even the world’s biggest entertainers, who 10 years ago would have jetted above the prairie big sky on their way to Toronto and Montreal stops, now play to sold-out audiences across the province.

In short, with the average Albertan’s wallet bulging with $26,000 of disposable income, the highest in Canada, Albertans are no longer discreet about money matters. And to help them spend their money, a growing number of lifestyle entrepreneurs have opened for business, hawking everything from red-carpet treatment to fancy-coloured diamonds.

It’s a Date
They’re single, flush with cash, but too busy to find the perfect match.
How Alberta’s nouveau riche still manage to hook up

Candace Neskar had everything going for her. She had drop-dead good looks and a fabulous career with a marketing company. The only problem was she couldn’t find a man. She was so busy working that when it came to dating, she was too pooped to prowl. “I was so exhausted that the thought of going out, or going to the bar or just making the effort – I couldn’t stomach any of those things,” she says.

One day while jet-setting on a business trip, Neskar was flipping through a business magazine and found the solution to her dating woes: an ad for It’s Just Lunch, a chain of dating services catering to busy professionals just like her. For $1,500 singles get a one-year membership that includes 14 carefully matched dates arranged as low-key lunches or after-work drinks. But instead of signing up for the service, Neskar dropped $45,000 and bought the Calgary franchise. Things went so well that Neskar soon began eyeballing Edmonton as part of expansion plans. She called up her friend Christine Morela and asked her if she wanted to invest in her venture; instead, Morela became a full business partner. By the following March, the Edmonton franchise was open for lunch, so to speak.

Neskar pegs the province as a booming market for lonely hearts. According to a 2005 City of Edmonton municipal census, 55% of the city’s population have never been married, are separated or divorced, or widowed. So far her client base has swelled from zero to 1,000 in less than one year.
Busy, high-earning professionals: that’s Neskar’s demographic. They range in age from 25 to 55 and work as lawyers, engineers, oil and gas executives. One trend Neskar and Morela have noticed: “We have a lot of millionaires,” says Neskar. So many that by winter It’s Just Lunch will be rolling out VIP memberships for their well-off clients.

“They have certain requests that maybe the average person wouldn’t have,” says Neskar. How about mingling with other millionaires? Other high-rollers demand exclusive one-on-one matchmaking done by Neskar herself, instead of the company team. “When you have three assistants and a private jet, you’re used to a certain lifestyle and expect it on all levels.” Dating included. — Leah Collins

All Access
You’re no one in Vegas without a table.
Let the ultimate vacation planner get you past the velvet rope

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But what that cheeky advertising campaign doesn’t tell you is that you need a lot of cash and some key connections to make anything happen in Sin City.
Every time Cynthia Pickering went clubbing in Vegas, she spent most of her evening on the wrong side of the velvet rope, standing in lineups hoping to get in to the hottest nightclubs. Pickering, the founder of Calgary-based Time is Money Executive Concierge Inc., wasn’t used to not getting first-class treatment. At home she was on a first-name basis with club owners, restaurateurs and high-end retailers. Anything her moneyed clients in Calgary wanted, she took care of. Standing behind the rope, she wondered if other Canadians suffered the same fate because they didn’t have the right connections in Vegas. That’s when the light bulb went off in her head.

“I talked to the managers in Vegas, the club owners, the VIP hosts, et cetera, basically saying, ‘I’m here right now and I want to get in,’” says Pickering. “I have a lot of clients continually coming [to Vegas] and there’s a big market coming down from Calgary. How can I give you business and how can you guarantee my clients are being taken care of?”

People listened to Pickering and it wasn’t long before her BlackBerry was full of phone numbers, people she could call to make things happen in Vegas for her wealthy Alberta clients. Want to shut down a boutique so you can shop sans riffraff? Cruise around town in a red hot Lamborghini? Pickering’s filled all those requests.

“What we really work on with our clients is personalizing whatever they want,” she says. In an average month, Pickering can plan up to six of these exclusive vacations. Her primarily Calgary-based clients book everything from family getaways to stagette parties, which she’ll schedule with as little as two days notice (never mind the three- to six-month waiting lists for five-star restaurants and clubs). Recently one client dropped five figures for a Christmas party, complete with helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon and custom hotel suites.

Pickering’s Vegas-based partner, Striker VIP, can arrange for an on-the-ground guide of the city’s best clubs and restaurants. “You’re paying a little bit more for him [Striker] because he’s there,” she says. “If people ask him ‘How much?’ he’ll say, ‘If money’s that much of a concern, you don’t need to talk to me anymore.’”

A Vegas golden ticket will set you back between $500 and $5,000, and that doesn’t include what you end up spending once you make it past the velvet rope. Tickets to May’s Oscar De La Hoya fight, one of this year’s more popular attractions among clients, went for $3,000 to $10,000. Bottle service at Pure nightclub, one of Pickering’s favourites, a cool $450 to $1,000. And if you want to gamble on bumping shoulders in the A-list-frequented lounges, you’re facing a four-bottle minimum, at least.
“If you want to go to the Cheesecake Factory, you don’t need me.” -LC

Sold to the highest bidder
Art follows the money. Canada’s
premiere art dealers are setting up shop in Calgary

There aren’t enough colourful adjectives in the dictionary to describe Ian Loch’s first year running one of Calgary newest art galleries. Loch Gallery opened its doors during the 2006 Calgary Stampede and immediately started attracting large crowds of collectors and buyers.

“We basically came to Calgary with a mailing list of about 10 people and the community has welcomed us with open arms. Our first year has been unbelievable. We have been overwhelmed with the response. Nothing would surprise me,” says Loch.

Loch Gallery is a family-owned business with roots stretching back 30 years to its home in Winnipeg. The business expanded to Toronto six years ago and Calgary was the next logical step for expansion. Within months, the family knew it had a winner in Calgary, one that will soon rival the performance of the more established galleries in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

“We’ve done two big shows and we sold both of them out. That doesn’t happen with our galleries in Winnipeg and Toronto. We usually sell a few pieces here and there, but people are coming in the door here and buying.”

The success of Loch Gallery is shared by fine art businesses across the province. According to a report produced by Hill Strategies Research, spending on works of art, carvings and vases in Alberta jumped from $77 million in 2004 to $118 million in 2005.

Doug Levis has seen the impact at his Calgary auction house. He hosts art auctions twice a year and interest is more intense than ever. Buyers have no hesitation when pursuing a favourite piece of art and won’t back down, even during a bidding war. “In some cases, the prices will go two or three times above the estimated value of the item. Buyers will keep bidding and bidding until they get it,” says Levis, who sold a painting by Paul Kane for $2.2 million in 2002, a year that marked the beginning of the boom. “When I’m talking to consignors across the country, I tell them Calgary has a lot of money. It’s a good place to sell your paintings because there are some big-time collectors here.”

Many art gallery owners downplay the link between the booming economy and the thriving art industry. Brent Luebke of Lando Art Gallery in Edmonton even suggests the industry might benefit from a slightly less manic economy. “The people who really have the interest and the money simply don’t have the time. That’s a common complaint I hear from collectors. It might be good that the economy appears to be slowing down because it gives people the time to pursue their passion for art,” says Luebke. -Jim Veenbaas

From zero to $300,000
in seven seconds
Imported cars: the impulse accessory

Zahir Rana doesn’t even blink when customers cut him a cheque for $300,000-plus. The owner of ZR Auto runs a thriving exotic car dealership in Calgary that caters to wealthy Albertans willing to burn holes in their pockets for the privilege of burning rubber on the road.

The dealership specializes in Lamborghinis, Ferraris and other previously owned, high-performance cars. The toys can easily top six figures, but ZR Auto is on pace to sell more than 50 cars this year. “Two months ago, a 20-year-old guy from Edmonton bought a $300,000 Lamborghini over the phone. He wired the money and two days later he picked up the car. He may be young, but he didn’t hesitate at the cost,” says Rana, whose private stable of cars includes a $1.4-million Ferrari Enzo that tops the clock at more than 330 kilometres per hour.

“Some guys will spend an extra $200,000 to $250,000 to customize their cars. They’re all tricked out to show-and-tell standards. It’s been nothing but non-stop busy here because people love the product and they have the money to spend.”

Although the extravagance at ZR Auto is lavish, even by Alberta standards, highways across the province have become virtual showrooms for the new cars and trucks. According to the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association, new car dealers in Alberta earned almost $9.2 billion in revenue in 2006, an increase of 15%, and they sold 248,731 vehicles, up 12% from 2005. That’s the highest growth in Canada, nearly six times the national increase of 2.2%.

The province’s phenomenal spending sparked the opening of a new Bentley dealership in Calgary this year – only the second to open in North America in the last five years – and is the reason Southgate Pontiac Buick of Edmonton is the highest-selling Hummer dealership in the country, moving 400 of the high-end SUVs in 2006.

“When you talk about what people are doing with their money, Albertans are not only buying a lot of new vehicles, they are customizing their vehicles like I have never seen before – and I don’t care what brand you are talking about,” explains Southgate Pontiac’s general sales manager Gerry Lorente. “We sold a vehicle the other day that had more than $35,000 in extras. There’s everything from lift kits and custom wheels, to tinting and power boards. People want the best and they are willing to pay for it.” -JV

Chop City
If you’re dining out in Alberta, chances are you’re eating sirloin.
Behold the return of the steakhouse

W hether they’re highfalutin lawyers or oil-and-gas tycoons, Albertans can’t get enough red meat on their plates. Witness the steakhouse revival: chophouse chains such as Ric’s Grill and Ruth’s Chris have proliferated Edmonton in the last five years.

Restaurateur Chris Lachance jumped on the trend early, opening Century Grill in Edmonton in 2000, followed by downtown steakhouse/lounge Lux in 2005 and gourmet diner Delux in 2006. “It’s not the same steakhouse our parents used to take us to when we were kids,” explains Lachance. No it isn’t. Mom and Dad weren’t supping on $25 Kobe beef burgers.

Hollywood celebrities, rock stars and professional athletes are frequently spotted in Lachance’s dining rooms. Figure skaters Salé and Pelletier were reported canoodling at Delux. Keanu Reeves supped at Century Grill. And Lux was transformed into NHL party central for Messier’s retirement bash.
If you’re not a celebrity, Lachance and his staff will still treat you like one. His manager has been known to book hotel rooms, do personal shopping and track down Oilers tickets in the thick of the playoffs. “We have a lot of power players, but they’re not necessarily the guys going to work every day in suits,” says Lachance.

Lux’s moneyed diners can easily spend $1,000 on lunch, and it happens more often than you’d think. “Five years ago, that was unheard-of,” says Lachance laughing. “If someone came in and had a four-figure lunch, I’d be getting a phone call.”

Edmonton is also home to the first high-end steak restaurant for Calgary-based restaurant chain Moxie’s Classic Grill. Chop-Steak, Fish and Bar opened its doors in Edmonton in 2006, offering its modern-day version of the classic steakhouse – expensive steak cuts and exciting seafood in designer digs. “Today’s marketplace is not only the most food-savvy in history, they are also the most design-savvy in history,” described Laurids Skaarup, president of the restaurant group.

In Calgary, restaurant offerings are more varied, but a meal will still set you back a day’s pay. Dominic Caracciolo of Calgary’s Mercato restaurant wouldn’t have expected his clients to be running tabs that high five years ago but, oh, what a difference a few years make. In 2002, the Italian market was in its original Bridgeland location, serving imported European groceries as it had for more than 30 years. Then Caracciolo moved the family business to the city’s popular Mission district two years ago and transformed the business into a yuppie institution, increasing its profits six times over. This at a time when the average Albertan can find the same authentic olive oils, mineral waters and other imported wares at box stores, never mind a mom-and-pop market, for cheap.

People will pay for a marked-up San Pellegrino because they are too busy making money to cook. Prepared meals, which include his 60-seat restaurant and catering service, account for 40% of business. Caracciolo expects his customers crave a sense of tradition, especially if they have a high-powered, high-stress lifestyle. “I think coming to the store makes them feel good,” he says. “So now you can buy a $300 bottle of wine and still get that same feeling.” -LC